Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Fresh Herbs for the Thoughtless Gardener

Contributed by Anna of Not Knowing Where

Have you ever noticed that many "healthy" recipes look just like your grandmother's recipe, except they call for things like fat-free cheese or egg substitute? When people tell me eating healthy is too expensive, I wonder if it's because they're reading recipes that call for specialty versions of high calorie food - like fat free butter or sugar-free honey.

When I was in college, my grandmother gave me a cookbook that has been a mainstay on my shelf for 15 years. It's a health food book with virtually no substitutes, just good healthy food plus herbs and spicesIt taught me that the secret to great cooking is not more butter or mayonnaise, but more guiltless, honest flavor. 

Eight years ago, I started an herb garden outside my front door. Over the course of a few years, I planted just about everything I liked to cook with, just to see what happened. Freshly picked herbs are incredible!

But here's the thing - I'm a horrible gardener. Maybe half my sprouts survived a season. Very few took hold in the long run. So anything that survived did so despite me, and certainly not because of me. In a strange way, that makes me feel uniquely qualified to make herb garden suggestions. I am here to tell you what herbs to grow that are insanely delicious, and yet have great resilience to the thoughtless gardener.

The ones that make the cut here survived multiple years under my care (or lack thereof). I asked my husband, the gifted gardener, to proof this post and make suggestions. In addition to some careful corrections, he made multiple suggestions of herbs to add. To which I mostly responded, "Nope, I killed that... Can't do that one; I killed it twice... etc." This is not a comprehensive list of herbs that gifted gardeners consider to be easy, but only the humble opinion of one who struggles. Sometimes I feel like too many bloggers only talk about what they are insanely good at. However I'm silly enough to post about my weaknesses, on this, my first contribution to The Cheap and Choosy. Am I crazy? Probably. But here goes!

Mediterranean spices: Rosemary and Culinary Sage
The Mediterranean climate has a rainy season and a dry season. In other words, you can be like me and totally forget to water your sage, then follow this neglect with a period of avidly watering it every day, and then go back to forgetting about it completely. Rosemary, once established, almost never needs to be watered if you live somewhere that experiences periodic rain. The culinary sage gets periodically stressed, but so far has always bounced back. The sage's only problem is bugs. Our rosemary (that I planted!) is large enough to take over the world. Rosemary and sage are both perennials in many zones.

Italian Spices: Oregano and Basil
Oregano will die off to a pile of twigs in the winter, but then generate new growth the next spring. Be warned, there are many varieties of oregano, and they don't all taste awesome. Make sure you know what you're getting, because you will have it forever. Basil is not a perennial in most zones, however it is prolific while it grows. I once decided to hack off the entire plant at its base in June because I was going to travel, and there was no one to water it. When I returned from my trip, it had started growing back. This trick seems to only work in the early summer. If you wait too long, then it will take the hint and die. 

I find garlic to be particularly miraculous. In October, go to the store and buy a few bulbs of garlic from the produce section. Divide it into cloves, and bury each one outside. Water it periodically until the weather starts to freeze. Then do nothing until the following spring. If you like spring garlic, then you can pull some up early to eat. In this case, you eat the entire spring garlic plant. If you want full, mature bulbs, then you wait through the summer until the stalk is almost completely dead. Dig up the bulbs, and you have a year's supply of garlic. Store them in a dry place.

Now is a great time to start planting herbs in your yard! Transplants are often best, as many herbs propagate better from cuttings than from seed. Potted herbs can be tempting because there is less weeding involved. However my experience has been that there is no substitute for the plant being in fertile ground. Potted plants dry out faster and do not over winter well for the thoughtless garden. 

The gardening husband insists that there are many more easy-to-grow herbs. Please share your experience if you have a favorite, hearty herb or spice in your yard. The Cheap and Choosy would love to hear your story.